Tricks of Language: Naming Bigotry against Muslims and Jews
Dr Brian Klug (Oxford University)

part of: Critical Philosophy of Race: Here and Now
June 5, 2014, 9:00am - 9:30am
Institute of Philosophy, School of Advanced Study, University of London

Room G22/26, Senate House
Malet Street
London WC1E 7HU
United Kingdom

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  • Institute of Philosophy
  • Institute of Commonwealth Studies
  • Aristotelian Society
  • Mind Association
  • Analysis Trust
  • UCL Department of Philosophy
  • UCL Joint Faculty Institute of Graduate Studies
  • UCL Race Equality Steering Group


Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman
University College London

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Tricks of Language: Naming Bigotry against Muslims and Jews (Klug)

A recent survey of Jewish opinion by the Fundamental Rights Agency (November 2013) indicates that 48% of UK respondents think that antisemitism is either a "very big" or "fairly big" problem in the UK. Current Metropolitan Police crime figures for London show a 51% increase in Islamophobic crime in the period October 2012 to October 2013 compared with the previous twelve months. Thus, bigotry against Jews and Muslims is a significant phenomenon in the UK today. But what do we mean by the two words that name these two bigotries: 'antisemitism' and 'Islamophobia'?

Both terms have led to misunderstanding. Sometimes they are contested on the grounds that they do not correspond to the concepts they name. At other times, the concepts are misconstrued on account of the terms that name them. I shall begin by discussing this cluster of problems, which illustrate how language is liable to play tricks on us. We are susceptible, as Wittgenstein puts it, to "the fascination which the analogy between two similar structures in our language can exert on us" (Blue Book). In this case, the analogy is with other complex words, whose meaning is often the product of the meaning of their parts. We are tempted to view 'Islamophobia' and 'antisemitism' the same way. Thus, on account of their purely formal properties, we incur various kinds of misunderstanding.

Furthermore, we associate 'Muslim' and 'Jew' with Islam and Judaism respectively, and we naturally place Islam and Judaism in the box labelled 'religion' , which we think of as separate from the box labelled 'race'. This leads us to regard bigotry against Islam and Judaism as specifically religious rather than racial. I shall interrogate this distinction and suggest that it is time to place 'religion', like 'race', in scare quotes as a warning that the word is problematic. Moreover, it is misleading. But in this case, it is misleading not on account of its formal properties but because it is part of an inherited vocabulary that is inherently loaded.

I shall argue that this vocabulary, along with the figures of the 'Jew' and 'Muslim', is a cultural legacy of the Enlightenment and that this legacy helps explain the nature of the bigotry against Jews and Muslims in Britain today. In this light, there is a case for seeing antisemitism and Islamophobia as the racialisation of Jews and Muslims respectively.


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